David Brooks wrote an op-ed for today’s New York Times where he talks about how we as an American society have failed the generation of college students about to enter the work force. Read the article at your leisure, but I’m planning to digress a bit from the topic. Brooks makes one comment that struck me as applicable to academic library work:

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Academic librarians talk a lot about developing skills, most notably in the context of information literacy. We spend many waking hours and significant resources teaching students how to effectively research information for their coursework, how to analyze it, use it, and (if we’re lucky) how to develop lifelong learning habits that they can use beyond the classroom. But in the opinion of Brooks, we (as part of the system that builds up young learners) are letting our students down.

Granted, Brooks is speaking in terms of the entire educational system, both institutional and cultural. He isn’t focusing his comments directly at universities but also at K-12 schools, parents, and communities. Yet, I think his conclusion is a helpful reminder of why librarians do what they do: one that provides a broader context.

Yes, we ought to teach students how to choose appropriate databases and developing effective search strings, but, all the while, keeping in mind that this is a skill that may only be applicable to the students’ time at university. What is important is the application of learned skill to other life experiences.

To that end, I would advocate for academic librarians to engage more with students by helping them develop better “ground level” skills: learning to manage personal information, to research job opportunities, to stay politically or socially involved with their communities, to build up communities… activities they will continue to struggle with far beyond graduation. We should talk to our students; find out what they think their needs are (or will be), then develop programming around those needs.

What are your thoughts? Should academic libraries be concerned with non-research-related (but information-related) skills development? Have you been a part of a similar program at your institution? How did it go? Let me know in the comments!

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